How Indian youth learn to dabble in haiku

Kala Ramesh

India, known for its unity in diversity, allows each state to specify its own official language. As a result, less than half the population speaks Hindi. Other languages such as Tamil in Tamil Nadu, and Marathi in Maharashtra are spoken by less than ten percent of the population. Therefore the number of ESL speakers is growing. English is the lingua franca, and the language of higher education, national media, the upper judiciary and corporate business. It seems to be making inroads to poetry circles too.

Haiku was introduced to Indian poets as far back as the beginning of the twentieth century, although haiku in English did not gain popularity in the classrooms of India until recently. With the support of ESL teachers such as Kala Ramesh, haiku seems to be on the verge of a big boom in India. An editor for the Mango Moons column in the journal India Muse, this spirited poet does have one request for her readers. She asks us not to rush through the poems in this article in one sitting, but rather we should “Read, ponder and chew the cud the way a cow does!”

How Indian youth learn to dabble in haiku

Kala Ramesh

In the last two years I have conducted fifty workshops about learning haiku in English at schools, colleges and public places. I have been invited to speak about haiku at literary festivals across my country. I have logged more than 165 hours of lessons with undergraduate students. I personally feel the youth in India have taken to writing haiku in English like fish take to water. Therefore, when David McMurray asked me to write about the nature of my sessions and the techniques I incorporate when teaching haiku to undergraduate students, I readily agreed. I would also like to share several testimonials about my courses from the students.

Four organisations that I have been involved with currently include haiku in either their curriculum or activities: the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, headed by Anita Patankar; the Central Board of Secondary Schools; Katha, a renowned publishing house in Delhi founded by Geeta Dharmarajan; and the Bookaroo Children’s Literary Festival, founded by Jo Williams and Swati Roy.

Haiku and other forms of Japanese poetry are taught as credit-bearing elective courses for undergraduates at the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts. In January 2013 I was hired to develop and teach a 60-hour module of English language for management students in the Symbiosis Centre for Management Studies. I was given complete freedom to design the course, and since I regularly write haiku, senryu, tanka, haibun, and renku, I decided to incorporate these genres into the syllabus. I’ve taught three semesters and in the rest of this article I will explain the methodology and results.

Teaching methodology

For each literary genre dozens of examples were read aloud in English to the students. Each poem was discussed. Poetic conventions and nuances were explained. So, for the 3-line, 17-syllable form of haiku, translated works by Basho, Buson, Shiki, Issa and Chiyo-in were recited in class. I also introduced poems by contemporary haikuists. I proceeded in the same manner for the 5-line, 31-syllable short poem genre called tanka; the prose-embedded with haiku literary form of writing poetry called haibun; and the collaboratively linked verse poetry called renku. Simple games were played to help students enjoy the poems. At the end of the reading session for each form of poetry students were encouraged to compose a poem. Aashna Banerjee wrote this haiku in class:

dancing without

knowing who holds my waist

masquerade ball

To further inspire them, students were invited to take renku trips together in the classroom simply by moving chairs to form circles to allow them to write poetry as a group. A leader writes the first three lines of a poem and passes it to a classmate, asking him or her to read it and add two lines before passing it on to another student to add three lines and so on. The final outcome of these round robins weaves several inspirational verses into one poem. Students were also invited on creative “ginko” walks and travelled outside the campus and into the hills and lakes region of Pune, India. Ginko is a Japanese term that describes a walk taken outdoors by a poet who composes haiku and sketches the landscape, flora and fauna in a scenic place or at a special time. These walks, and the poems inspired by them, were an unforgettable experience for me as an instructor.

At the end of the course, Aashna Banerjee wrote, “When I signed up for the haiku poetry class, I had expected us to be studying only haiku. However, we covered all the major forms of Japanese poetry in detail over a span of four months. We were given several opportunities to showcase our creativity and each person in the class had their own moments of glory. I especially enjoyed the renku trips since as a class we were extremely cohesive throughout the process.”


As a credit-bearing elective course, I evaluated 60% of the final score as an internal examiner of the college, and 40% was assessed by invited haiku poets as external examiners. The students are doing exceptionally well. Many of them exhibit a keen sense of subtlety such as these Japanese poetry forms demand. Students demonstrated creativity by coining new words and were able to critique poems.


As part of their final assessment the students were asked to create seasonal words or phrases (kigo), suitable for the seasons we experience in India.

 Krishna S. Gohil coined the phrase scorching winds, explaining “My hometown is Baroda, Gujarat, a place where summers are extremely hot. The heat is so dominant that even the winds that blow carry hot currents and when they touch your skin, you feel as if they burnt you.”

Disha Upadhayay coined white rain, the “Rains without the dark clouds. When it rains in the rainy season without dark clouds, on a bright day full of sunlight, it can be called white rain or naked rain.”

For Vinamra Agarwal, “the borrowed word ‘sharbat’ (sherbet) symbolizes summer and especially the summer holidays when I was in school. This is so because, growing up in Delhi, I have experienced extreme hot summers and sharbat was the first thing I used to have at home after a long day of playing in the sun.”

As another part of the final assessment 10 haiku poems were sent by email to students and they were asked to write a critical appreciation of the haiku they liked best. For example, Kavya Kavuri chose to critique this poem by Ryokan, translated by Stephen Mitchell:

The thief left it behind:

the moon

at my window

“I have chosen the above haiku because the three simple lines have a deep meaning in them. The line ‘the thief left it behind’ portrays the backdrop that the thief has come and robbed the house. But he has left something behind. Our minds go into the thought about what he could have left behind. The wild guesses the readers make is the essence of this haiku. The line ‘the moon at my window’ shows that it’s night and the room is empty. The person can only see the moon at the window and nothing else because the house has been robbed.”

Testimonials from students

Soumitra Saxena related his experience in this course as “heart-warming and uplifting. Being a prose writer and a free verse poet myself, studying haiku and the various associated forms like senryu and one line haiku provided me with a welcome change from the more familiar written arts. I am enjoying the pleasant experience of experimentation not only when writing haiku, but also when applying the various techniques and the use of imagery I learned in this course to my other writing endeavors as well. I have also been able to incorporate these techniques in Hindi.”

In her testimonial, Prachi Bhutada admitted that she was “a shy writer and have never attempted to write poetry before. Though haiku was a start, writing a renku was a completely different feeling. Writing with a group, taking another person’s thought and linking your thought to it is challenging, but in a good way. It gave me a sense of being a small but an important part of a whole body. It has given me more confidence to write and now I am able to read my work in front of people.”

Adheip Rashida noted that he “always had this attraction to Japanese culture. Learning haiku and other forms of poetry made me feel closer to it. People express things beautifully through them and something intangible is created of what would otherwise be nothing. This is why I really appreciate what I have learnt in the haiku poetry class.”

The next generation of haikuists

To build the foundations for an interest in taking such college courses I have been working with Katha, an NGO in the field of children’s education, and the Central Board of Secondary Education to promote a creative writing program at 9,000 schools all over the country. Nearly 600 schools opted for this program in which haiku is one of the subjects studied. Many good haiku poems were written at a three day intensive haiku workshop, that Katha intends to publish in a book, including this one by 17-year old Aditya Ashribad..

still water . . .

a zebra runs away

from itself

Another way that encourages Indian youth to dabble in haiku is the Bookaroo Children’s Literary Festival. Each session attracts more than 100 children. Children love to see their poems pinned up alongside works by Basho, Issa, Shiki, Buson and Chiyo-ni. One kid in Delhi told me she attended my workshop simply because she liked the sound of the Japanese word haiku. I leave you to appreciate this haiku penned on the spot by Ritaj, who had come all the way from Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu, to attend the Bookaroo Festival at Pune.

people everywhere

amongst them I walk

finding my own silence